Walk signs in downtown Nairobi carry a real sense of urgency
So timing last week was bad. First I got a bit rattled by the news of Camille Lepage’s death, then the presumption of safety in Nairobi was thrown into question.
Some things end up filtering out to the public. It’s now public knowledge that the UN has banned visitors to the compound. The US Embassy (across the street) has reduced their staff on site and increased security, including marines and roof snipers.
But what are the actual dangers?
After the escalating rumors last week regarding terrorism in Nairobi, we topped off the week with the Gikomba Market explosions.
What I found extraordinary is how immediately the Western news media picked up on the Gikomba Market attack. We’ve had about TWENTY IED/grenade explosions in Nairobi, many even since Westgate in September 2013.
I don’t know why this particular attack sparked the news media, but it certainly was the tipping point at the UN. Speculation became reality, and the measures we’d been told were in consideration to keep us safe were put into effect immediately.
What does it all exactly mean for life in Kenya, though?
Attacks happen a lot here. Lots of them impact us indirectly in some way, whether by location or personal relation. My colleague at work just had an attempted break-in at his house less than two weeks ago, where armed thieves dug under his fence, poisoned his dogs, tied up and beat his guard almost to death, and then engaged in a gun battle with the security forces responding to the panic button.
And, because attacks are a regular part of life, people tend to just be nonplussed and shrug off the danger alerts.
Am I worried about the repercussions of the Gikomba attack? No, Gikomba Market is in Eastleigh, quite far from both my house, and from the UN (see photo).
But we have been told that the UN has officially received credible information that the compound is a target.
Does that mean that my house isn’t safe? Not at all.
Does that warrant my evacuation from the country? No.
Does it make me extremely anxious while I’m at the office? Absolutely.
We’ve been given some leniency in terms of telecommuting and flexible hours, which soothes anxiety a bit.
Life here will go on. Most Kenyan nationals are totally ambivalent and unconcerned. We went to the Village Market yesterday and it was packed, people were shopping, and the palpable tension felt in the city on Saturday right after Gikomba seemed to have already dissipated. Explosions, as I’ve mentioned, are a total wrong place, wrong time kind of incident.
For UN staffers, however, it feels like we’re just waiting on the wrong time.
I was shocked and saddened today to see that a photo journalist, Camille Lepage, was found murdered in the Central African Republic. I didn’t know her, and, while my study site in DRC was close to the border with CAR, I haven’t actually spent any time there.
So why was this story resonating so strongly with me?
My friend John made a comment that this girl was like a metaphorical sister, and that, perhaps of my over-empathy with her scenario, that it was hitting me harder because of my personal experience.
Lots of people could say that Camille died because she made dangerous choices, but that sort of blind safety netting irks me deeply. I live in Nairobi, and recently, we have been deluged with security alerts. Rumors have been running rampant, and when we arrived at work yesterday there were blue-helmeted peacekeeping forces doing double security checks at the entrance (not a normal occurrence).
No one is sure what is going on, aside from the receipt of the always nebulous term “credible threats.”
One could very easily argue that Nairobi is dangerous. But where do you draw the line between “kinda dangerous” and “really fucking dangerous”? Is there enough threat for me to get to bail on work? Of course not.
But today at lunch, when my colleague and I wanted to leave the compound for lunch
so that we wouldn’t die of food poisoning we did make the conscious choice not to eat at the Village Market because it is almost certainly a target, as a haven of wealth and expats.
At what point, though, are you living a life dictated by fear? Are you being smart, or scared? Where can you actually be “safe” by someone’s definition other than the moment’s?
In addition to the numerous emails I get from the UN’s Security department, I got an alert from the US Embassy here in Nairobi:
we would like to remind U.S. citizens that targets for these attacks could include hotels, nightclubs, shopping malls, diplomatic missions, transportation hubs, religious institutions, government offices, or public transportation.
Now, not to sound cynical, but is there a location that’s been left off this list, aside from LAURA’S BACKYARD? Or maybe the bathroom?
In comparison to the bulk of my colleagues and friends, I am generally nonplussed about the omnipresent dangers of living in Nairobi. I was living in NYC during 9/11, as I’ve mentioned, and it just makes me feel worse about something like Camille’s death.
She spent years in Juba, South Sudan. I spent years in DRCongo. I’m sure she felt, as I would have, that if you’ve already made it through something shittier and more dangerous that you’re probably okay in some place that is less obviously dangerous. But again, not only is the definition of “dangerous” completely arbitrary, but you’re using the same mentality as people who say they won’t get hit by a car because they never have been.
In today’s connected tech society, it becomes so easy to feel invulnerable and protected. Your tendrils to the “outside world” make you feel like someone has your back, but it’s really just a fallacy. Here was Camille, tweeting away, 26, finding it hard to imagine that some instagram hipster filter would be the last view of her adventure anyone would ever get.
John suggested that maybe awesome stuff gets done by 20-year-olds because they’re unaware of how stupid and dangerous they’re being.
And maybe it’s because I’m older, but the thing that keeps resonating with me is how Camille’s parents must feel. Proud of their daughter’s adventuresome spirit, and her ability to contribute things to the world view? To show a side of the world that few are brave enough to encounter? Her killers will almost certainly never be found, and absolutely never be brought to justice. Does that mean that her parents must just mourn quietly, wondering why their daughter couldn’t have become a lawyer in Europe?
I’d ask my parents for their stances, but, as I’m currently living in a country that the State Department deems too dangerous to be in, I don’t think I want to know the answer.
RIP, Camille. At least one person in the world will never question the choices you made.